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Column: Ireland needs a new party to make the 'Second Republic' a reality

There is a clear opportunity for a new broad based, progressive, political party that proposes a vision for a new Ireland based on the values of social and economic equality, writes Rory Hearne.

Rory Hearne

“ON THE 25 FEBRUARY a democratic revolution took place in Ireland. Old beliefs, traditions and expectations were blown away. The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind. The public demanded change and looked to parties that would deliver the change they sought. In that election record numbers of Irish people turned to, and chose, Fine Gael and Labour. The people chose our two parties to begin mending the pieces of a fractured society, a broken economy and to provide a sense of collective hope in our shared future.”

This opening statement from the Programme for Government captures the popular mood in the run up to the General Election of February 2011. It reminds us that the Irish electorate were looking for solutions to the crisis that would protect our society and grow the economy, rather than continued austerity and bailing out zombie banks and billionaire bondholders. They also sought a transformation of politics through genuine democratic accountability of our state institutions and politicians.

The Fine Gael-Labour government has, however, failed to fulfill its electoral promises and seize that historic opportunity of public support for radical change.  Their inaction has created wide spread disillusionment. The Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll of April this year showed a record 75 per cent dissatisfaction rating with the government. The associate director of Millward Brown commented on the poll that “many are beyond being disaffected – they feel disenfranchised… this disaffection with their policies spans the generational divide. It is not a knee-jerk reaction from any particular cohort – the malaise is widespread across all ages.”

The Meath East by-election saw support for Labour collapse to a mere 4.5 per cent of first preference votes. The reason for this is, of course, the reality of the social crisis that is devastating hundreds of thousands of people through emigration, unemployment, mortgage arrears, child poverty and rising inequality. And those paying the highest price for the government reaching its budget deficit targets are the most vulnerable, living in disadvantaged communities like the one where I work. I see their daily struggle of living with poor health as a result of damp housing conditions and welfare cuts and job losses resulting in being unable to pay heating bills, school costs, and even for food.

Ireland is in a state of social emergency

The political establishment is failing to grasp the severity of this crisis and that we are in a state of social emergency. They are also failing to acknowledge the associated public disillusionment with political parties and institutions as the government continues the clientelism and cronyism associated with the former Fianna Fail administration. Just look at fiasco of the allocation of primary care centres.

Even new initiatives such as constitutional convention, while an interesting idea in theory, have been in practice a mere tweaking around the edges. Conservative and right wing political forces, on the other hand, do indeed recognise the current political and social crisis and are trying to form a new political party to capitalise on this dissent. That party is likely to pursue the policies of the former Progressive Democrats that contributed to the collapse of our economy; low taxation; light-touch regulation; low public spending on services and privatisation of public assets. The likes of Declan Ganley, Marc Coleman and Michael McDowell have being making this case recently.

This space has also seen a new party, Direct Democracy Ireland (DDI) emerge and beat Labour in Meath East, achieving 6.5 per cent of the vote. The success of DDI highlights the potential support that new parties can achieve. However, the ideology and value base of DDI seems unclear with some critics claiming its founder, Ben Gilroy, has shown support for disgraced businessman Seán Quinn.

Meanwhile on the left of the political spectrum the United Left Alliance (ULA) has failed, thus far, to build on its potential. It has been impacted severely by the resignation of two of its TDs from the party and on-going internal divisions, such as the recent launch of a new group within the ULA by two of its TDs, Clare Daly and Joan Collins. There is, therefore, a clear opportunity for a new broad based, progressive, political party that proposes a vision for an Ireland based on the values of social and economic equality, community, democracy, and environmental sustainability to gain significant public support.

The welfare of people over profit

Such an alternative vision was outlined prior to the last election by the journalist and author, Fintan O Toole, in his call for a Second Republic. A Second Republic, O Toole outlined, was necessary to achieve the ideals of the first republic – an Ireland of equality and social justice including the vision of James Connolly and others who espoused the welfare of the people and workers as their priority over business profit, greed and power. These ideals were never implemented in practice and, instead, we have had a dysfunctional, unaccountable and authoritarian state that was based on punitive church control and charity-based provision of welfare and public services.

The established political parties continue to demonstrate that they have no interest or will in undertaking the radical action required to make the Second Republic a reality. A new social movement and political party is necessary, therefore, to capture the imagination of electorate. A broad policy platform could unite diverse groups, politicians and individuals around issues such as:

  • Opposing the proposed cuts to public services and welfare in coming budgets;
  • Reversing cuts to community and youth projects, special needs, home helps and disability services;
  • Ending the public private apartheid in our health services;
  • Supporting an emergency investment in employment;
  • Higher taxation on wealth; a write down of our odious debts;
  • Real solutions to the mortgage arrears crisis;
  • Improving the pay and conditions of the lower paid;
  • Greater democratic accountability through local democracy and recall petitions; and
  • Support for locally based economic alternatives such as worker and housing co-operatives

The burden lies on the shoulders of all society

There is a strong base to start such a party amongst, at least, eleven TDs in Dail Eireann, including ex-Labour members, the independent left and the ULA, who could potentially agree on many of these issues. Political experience would suggest, however, that this is unlikely to work given historical divisions. But this disregards the current scale of the crisis and its associated moments of opportunity.

There is growing pressuring on those who agree on this course to unite and take on the responsibility of doing what is right for the Irish people. This would require putting aside their differences, breaking from historic ways of doing politics and offer visionary political leadership. This means letting go, for some, of archaic socialist dogma, or, for others, holding on to the hope of a reformed Labour Party, or the illusion that radical progressive change can be achieved in coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, or staying as a ‘non-aligned’ independent.

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In doing so they would see support emerge from local community groups, trade unions, NGOs and the many thousands of individuals looking for such an alternative.  But this is not just a responsibility of political activists – it will only become a reality when the public goes beyond being passive consumers and observers and gets involved in politics, campaigns, and communities.

A radical change in politics is needed

The alternative is stark. Ahead lie decades of despair, rising poverty, emigration, unemployment, and inequality, unless a radical change in direction and transformation of our politics, society and economy is undertaken. This is alongside the political likelihood of Fianna Fail, the party responsible for wrecking this country, re-entering government after the next election (with support from either a right wing grouping like Libertas or from Sinn Fein, who have not equivocally ruled out this possibility).

It’s our choice, and within our collective ability, to imagine and create a new Republic of Ireland where anyone who needs health care will get the best treatment irrespective of being able to afford it, where sufficient, fulfilling, employment is available for all, where costs are not a barrier to education, where everyone’s home is of adequate standard and they feel safe in their community, and where there is active involvement in a thriving local and national democracy.

It clearly would be wrong to leave the political revolution to another generation.

Rory Hearne is a community worker, policy analyst, occasional lecturer and has been active in social movements and left politics for many years.  He is author of Public Private Partnerships in Ireland: Failed Experiment or the Way Forward for the State (Manchester University Press, 2011).

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Rory Hearne

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